Mastering Halloween in Old Northeast
In this hot housing market, many Zillow listings for the Old Northeast mention the beautiful old trees, the proximity to downtown, the waterfront parks. But there’s something important home-sellers often fail to share. Frankly, it should be in the “Disclosures.” But if you’ve moved to Old Northeast recently, perhaps you’ve heard some version of, “You know about Halloween, right?”
Like it or not, in ONE, Halloween is a part of your life now, and you have three choices: You can embrace it and turn your home into a haunted mansion, a pirate ship, or a spooky orphanage. You can turn the lights off and hide. (We see you in there.) Or you can leave town.
The Northeast Journal is here to help those of you who plan to stay and brave this thing that has become the Old Northeast Halloween phenomenon. Here are a few tips for beginners:
1. Buy lots of candy. Then go out and buy more. Then buy more.
2. Protect your yard. When 1,000 kids show up to get candy, physical reminders to remain on the sidewalk will be necessary if you plan to keep that sod green and those sprinkler heads intact.
3. Don’t expect people to come up and ring your doorbell. Approach it like the McDonald’s drive thru and figure out how to get candy into bags as quickly as possible. (Pro tip: Invite friends over so you can get a bathroom break.)
4. You can’t over decorate. In Old Northeast, attics are full of skeletons and guillotines. Christmas is an understated affair, but lucky newcomers might find the previous owner has left them a few scares in the rafters.
5. Seventeenth Avenue is often the heart of the action, with a street closure preventing cars from traveling east of Locust Street. Here, the revelry can spread out without having to worry about traffic. David and Elizabeth McCaffree were definitely not properly warned when they bought their house on 18th Avenue NE, just a block from those barricades.
“One of the Realtors said something vague about the community being really active at Halloween, but we were unaware of the scale in terms of the displays and the number of people who would come into our neighborhood,” David recalls. Their first Halloween happened to be shut down because of the pandemic. But an article in the Tampa Bay Timesabout the subdued holiday featured a 2004 photo of their home and they knew they had to get ready. David, a retired Marine, started drawing up plans. They made it an educational experience for their two girls, 11 and 14.
“We used fractions and ratios to make our theme to scale,” Elizabeth said, referring to the enormous octopus attacking their front porch, which was transformed into the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. “I was inspired by references to 20,000 Leagues in the book All the Light We Cannot See.” The book-loving family’s literary idea took root while David designed each piece to store neatly in their garage.
The display was interactive, Elizabeth explains: “We tell the little kids in superhero costumes that we needed their powers to help fight off the giant sea creature. It was more fun than I expected.” Elizabeth said David already has drawings on draft paper for additions for this year’s display.
Newcomers might wonder how Old Northeast became the epicenter of ghostly grandeur. One origin story comes from Cynthia Serra on 10th Avenue. Two-and-a-half decades ago, she and a friend started dressing up as the Wicked Witches of Old Northeast, parading around the neighborhood in a convertible, tossing candy. This evolved into a house-decorating contest that today lives on in Historic Old Northeast Neighborhood Association’s official annual contest. But even before Cynthia and her crowd spiced things up, the neighborhood had a reputation as the city’s Halloween champ. Only here can turning your lawn into a temporary cemetery – complete with life-size skeleton-horse-drawn hearse – gain you the ultimate accolades.
One house that never disappoints belongs to dermatologist Liz Arrington and her husband Rob. Their home on 18th Avenue, between Locust and Cherry, is transformed into a War of the Worlds alien invasion. Arrington says, “When we moved here our kids were still little and we didn’t want to do something that was too scary. Our house always reminded me of a barn and that inspired the aliens-in-the-corn-field theme. Rob is an electrical engineer and at the time he was a stay-at-home dad.” The result is enormous homemade flying saucers that land and take off with the assistance of a pulley and a garage door opener. They get corn stalks from a local farm. “But I think my favorite,” says Liz, “is the night before.”
Arrington is referring to Halloween eve, when Old Northeast looks more like what you might remember growing up. Neighbors roam the streets to get a glimpse of the most over-the-top creations. This informal tradition was cemented during the pandemic when parents organized safe trick-or-treating for smaller kids, and it continues for children who might be overwhelmed or just too busy during the main event on Halloween night. If there’s ever a night to meet your neighbors, this is it.
On Halloween night, tricks are big, but the treats tend to be small. With as many as 2,000 trick-or-treaters, it’s a quantity over quality affair in ONE. Mini-Three Musketeers, individual Starbursts, Double Bubble, Dumdums, and Tootsie Rolls are staples. But not everyone is just trying to make their candy last until 9 p.m.
More than a decade ago, one resident set up a cotton candy machine. The line for a wispy swirl of hot pink sugar stretched for a block. Legend has it that when that house was sold, the cotton candy machine stayed with the house – with the stipulation that the new owners carry on the tradition. This requirement purportedly included a lesson in the art of cotton candy making.
Eventually, the machine ended up in the hands of Marci and Joe Emerson. From her new home in Colorado, Marci recalls, “We loved hosting friends who were enlisted to help work the machine, and everyone ended up coated in sugar by the end of the night. We counted upwards of 2,500 cotton candy cones given out!” Under the pressure of making thousands of treats, the machine eventually gave out, sparing the new owners of their home the obligation of attending Circus Candy Culinary School.
Just because Old Northeast gets all the attention on Halloween, doesn’t mean other neighborhoods aren’t going above and beyond, however. Euclid St. Paul holds The Haunted Hike of St. Pete’s “most paranormal neighborhood.” And Crescent Heights takes some of the pressure off decorating by encouraging residents to simply hang orange jack-o’-lanterns from their trees. The effect of thousands of pumpkin heads floating on invisible strings is simultaneously beautiful and spooky.
While the morning after invariably involves a bit of cleanup, neighbors usually pitch in to keep candy wrappers from washing down storm drains and the decorations stashed away. And, if you’re new to the area, and you spot a skeleton in your attic, don’t be afraid. It’s probably just a prop – or someone who ran out of candy too early.
For more information on Halloween in Old Northeast, check out HONNA.org or find them at facebook.com/honnaorg.